In his new book, Focus, author Leo Babauta of productivity blog Zen Habits talks about finding simplicity in what he calls the Age of Distraction. Here, Babauta offers a crash course on starting your workday with focus.
Yesterday we highlighted the release of Focus; below, the author offers his best tips for building your workday around better focus.
Finding focus in the Age of Distraction isn’t easy. We’ve all opened up our email, Twitter, Facebook or a link to a site… and after several hours, realised we’ve frittered away half our day.
Finding focus isn’t easy. It starts with, before all else, a commitment to finding it.
Once you’ve done that, the rest is obvious — and yet the resulting struggle can be like wrestling with Death himself. Leaving you sweaty and with the feeling that you’ve lost even if you’ve won.
I’ve fought that struggle mightily for years, and I’m here to share a few quick and dirty tips from the trenches: a crash course in starting your next workday with focus.
Start out your day with the commitment to focus that’s required. Don’t take it lightly. If you start it like any other day, it’ll end up that way. So tell yourself that this will be your Day of Focus, and that it’ll be the testing ground and model for all other Days of Focus from here on out. Photo by Tom Heyes.
How to start your day right:
1. Write “FOCUS” on an index card. It sounds silly, but if you can’t commit to this simple step, you probably won’t commit to the others. Write it down, and keep it next to you on your desk. It’s a simple reminder, to help you be conscious.
2. Write down your Most Important Task for today. Actually write it down, on the same index card. You’re going to do this first. It should be a high-impact task that makes a big difference to your business, career, life. Something that you’re excited about is best.
3. Create a focused environment. Clear off your desktop. Take everything off it but your computer, the index card, maybe the phone, maybe your in-basket, maybe a notebook to write down ideas and notes for later. All the other stuff: put it in a drawer or on the floor for sorting later.
4. Schedule your focus time. Make it your first hour (after doing the above tasks). Unplug from the Internet, turn off your mobile device, maybe plug in some earphones and some music, close your browser and all other programs except what you absolutely need to work on your Most Important Task. Make this an unmissable appointment.
What should you do the rest of the day? A few ideas:
1. Schedule other focus blocks. Whether it’s 20 or 30 minutes, or an hour at a time, set aside disconnected times to focus on specific, important tasks. Stick to these appointments without fail — you’re creating the habit of focus.
2. Schedule communication and reading times. Instead of having email open all day, schedule times for it. I know you’ve heard this before, but today you’re committed to focus. Actually do this, at least for today. Your schedule might be to do email and Twitter for 10 minutes at the top of each hour, or for 15 minutes after your focus blocks, or twice a day at 10am and 4pm, but schedule it. Set aside this time for email, Twitter, online reading, IM, and anything else that might distract you from focus. Now stick to it!
3. Get away from the computer. At least a couple of times during the day, get outside and take a walk. Let this be time to reflect, get some fresh air, get some movement into your day, get away from the hustle of the workday.
4. Single-task. This has been written about a lot lately, but that’s because it works. Multi-tasking has its place, but it’s simply not more effective most of the time. It creates a workflow of distraction, of diffused attention, of fragmented concentration. Concentrating on one thing at a time is absolutely more effective, and you should work on this as much as possible during the day — work on one task, and block out all the other stuff. And when you check your email, just do email, then get out.
5. Simple tools. Don’t obsess about getting the right tools to focus — it becomes counterproductive. Instead, just use simple tools and get on with the work. I prefer a simple text editor for writing, but which one really doesn’t matter at all. What matters is closing everything else. Pen and paper also work well for most things. Photo by Flik.
Tackle the Fears
At the end of your day, disconnect again, and reflect on your day. How did it go? Were you absolutely focused, or did you have problems?
The key is to become aware of your urge to connect and check your email or Twitter or whatever it is that normally distracts you. You can use extensions or programs that block your favourite distractions, but there are always ways to turn those off. You need to get to the root of the problem.
The root of the problem is fear. You’re afraid of tackling the big tasks, or afraid of being disconnected because you might miss something.
Become aware of these fears. Be brutally honest with yourself — if you’re not, you’ll just keep repeating the same mistakes.
Then tackle the fears, one at a time, with small tests: try disconnecting for 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 30 minutes… and see what happens. Most of the time, our fears will be disproven, as nothing bad will happen. As we increase the length of the tests, we’ll become more and more confident, and the fears will subside.
But it starts with the awareness and honesty about the fears, and a commitment to beating them.
Reflection and Quiet
Focus isn’t all about work. With the endless distractions and the always-on culture that we’ve created, it’s hard to find peace and quiet, simply for contemplation.
I highly recommend finding some time at the start and end of each day for quiet. I simply sit on a pillow in the mornings, and reflect. At the end of my day, I like to take a walk or have tea with my wife. But there are lots of ways to find quiet — it simply means tearing yourself away from the screen, turning off the mobile devices and TV, and finding that quiet place.
The benefits of finding time for reflection are many: you’ll lower your stress levels and become healthier, you’ll have time to think about important big-picture things, you’ll feel more focused when you actually sit down to create. But the biggest benefit is simple: You’ll find sanity in a world where it’s an increasingly rare commodity. Photo by Jakob Montrasio.
Leo Babauta is an author and the creative force behind the minimalism and productivity blog Zen Habits. You can read more about finding focus and simplicity by checking out Leo’s new book Focus – available as a free version and an expanded premium version with bonus chapters, guides, videos and audio interviews.